Emily Speed: “Flatland”

Tate Liverpool, until 5th June 2022, free

Flatland” is the name of an 1884 social satire/ early sci-fi novella by Edwin Abbott Abbott which imagines a world whose citizens are 2D shapes. Women only exist as straight lines, of low status and yet feared for their potential to be destructive, and their behaviour is rigorously policed for the benefit of the more substantial male citizens.

In her Art North West commission for Tate Liverpool Emily Speed has borrowed both inspiration and title from this book. Flatland comprises of two films, and a physical exhibition of their scenery and costumes. The main element of this is a ‘washing line’ construction, upon which is hung what appears to be massively oversized laundry. In the film this starts out as a long flat panel, but we watch the women change this, moving walls to suit how they wish to behave. There’s also a display of their clothes – padded, layered, with volume that takes up space.

Rails of clothing from Emily Speed's "Flatland". From left-right: a brown tabard with flat layers, a pink kimono, a green thick-weave skirt and jacket, and a grey tabard with a model set built onto the chest.

The film shows us a group of four women stepping away from what’s implied to be a rigid existence of domesticity, to enjoy a freedom of movement. I enjoy the way their dance builds. Starting with gentle hip sways, glances between the women show us their mutual consent to take this enjoyment further. The flat panels are rearranged, shaped to suit their needs. A beat gently pulses, and the movement becomes freer.

There’s a growing movement in wellness circles around dance. The idea is that we spend too much time self-censoring ourselves, that moving freely – either on our own or in the company of others – helps us become our “most authentic selves”. Flatland may or may not have been inspired by this, but it certainly makes it make sense. As we watch these women indulge in an opportunity to move, we sense their joy. Though all the actions are independent and individual, there’s a sense of consensus and connection. Once their session is over we observe a series of pole-dancing poses, a literal way of using a linear space as a way of practising strength and power.

I mentioned joy above, and this emotion is the main impression I’m left with from the film. Joy, mixed with a big dash of defiance. Liberation is a more complicated question. Movement is free and linearity is broken up, yet there’s a sense that this is a very private world which is kept if not quite ‘secret’, then separate from common perception. When they are reconstructing their space the clothes on the line aren’t torn and trodden down, but arranged to one side – potentially for restoration? The new setup of the line creates a strong community, but it’s still walled off from the world. There’s echoes of this elsewhere in the exhibition too. One of the of the outfits from the film which is on display is a tabard. A flap on the front can be unbuttoned to reveal a small version of the scenery. It’s like getting an insight into the wearer’s imagination.

Photo from Emily Spee'ds "Flatland". A large structure of black metal revtangles hung with fabric shaped like oversized clothing including a pair of red tights and a grey tshirt

But is it their secret, or our weakness that we can only see it as such? This challenge for us to expand our perspective is thrown into sharp focus by the second film in the show. Round the corner on the ‘washing-line’, a story is being told. But it’s not one I can follow and I instead have to rely on text to translate, because it’s in Sign Language. I realise that I’ve never had much reason to give my inability to communicate in this language much thought before, and now I feel the gap that exists not just in my ability to communicate with people but in my perception of the world. It’s my problem, not hers, that I can’t understand her story.

In a similar way it’s the world’s problem, not the women’s, that they express their communal joy apart from those around them. There’s still so often a lack of imagination when it comes to ideas about how we (by which I mean not just women, but all gender and non-binary identities) can/ should express ourselves. So much self-expression is still often regarded as outside the norm that the act of simply creating space for it is important, and to be celebrated.

Researching the novella “Flatland” brings up numerous debates about the book’s misogyny. This was a critique even at the time, and something Abbott addressed directly by saying that readers were missing how it was a parody of such values rather than an endorsement. The fact that the satire was missed implies a level of failure. Fortunately, this is not something which could be said of Speed’s work. Flatland gives room for the rules to be literally bent – temporarily or otherwise – for internal emotion to be expressed, and for us – if we’re open to it – to get a taste of how this would feel for ourselves.

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